With Bill Drummond’s 65th birthday today – we thought it would be good to publish an extract of the The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds by JMR Higgs.
Honestly one of the best books we’ve ever read and if you don’t buy it by reading the end of this extract then, well you have free will, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice.
PROLOGUE: The Fuckers Burned The Lot
Jim Reid retired to his hotel room at around midnight on 22nd August 1994. Half an hour later there was a knock at the door. It was Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, and they had the suitcase with them.
“Come on, we’re going to do it now”, said Drummond.
Reid asked why. “There’s just a time when you instinctively know it is right,” Cauty replied. The plan had been to get up early on the morning of the 23rd and climb, with the suitcase and its contents, to the top of one of the mountains that dominate the island of Jura. Well, it was now technically the morning of the 23rd. The mountain was unimportant.
“Do you remember Christmas when you were a kid, and you just couldn’t wait for morning?” Drummond asked.
Reid was a journalist who had been taken to Jura by Drummond and Cauty in order to act as a witness. He grabbed his Dictaphone and followed. They left the warmth of the hotel and went outside into the night. Here they met the fourth member of their party, Alan Goodrick, a Falklands War veteran and rock tour manager more commonly known as Gimpo. It was raining.
Drummond did not look like one of the most successful and credible pop stars on the planet. He was forty years old with an everyman haircut and the sort of thoughtful, respectable demeanour you might associate with a secondary school teacher. Nevertheless, he had produced a string of global number one singles and had just come first in Select magazine’s ‘100 Coolest People’ list. Jimmy Cauty, the other half of the duo known as The KLF (amongst other things), was a few years younger with wild dark curly hair and a more anarchic sparkle in his eyes.
The suitcase went into the hire car’s boot. Reid had still not seen the contents of the case at this point, but he was pretty sure he knew what was inside. Gimpo had also guessed. During the flight to the Hebridean island the thought of killing Drummond and Cauty in order to steal the suitcase had entered his head. He didn’t do that, of course. He just thought about it.
Well you would, wouldn’t you?
Gimpo drove them away from the hotel, down a rough track and across the Scottish island. The night was pitch black. “This just feels better”, Drummond said, “going out in the night when it’s pissing down with rain.”
A few minutes later they pulled up by a deserted stone boathouse. Cauty had discovered it earlier in the evening when he and Drummond had been searching for the remains of a giant wicker man they had burned three years earlier, in front of dozens of robed and hooded members of the music press. They stepped out into the cold. Gimpo left the car lights on and they illuminated the rain, the bracken and the boathouse. They took the suitcase out of the boot.
They went inside. The flame from a cigarette lighter revealed rough stone walls and an earth floor. Ropes hung from old wooden rafters. And at the far end: a fireplace.
The suitcase was opened and its contents were dumped onto the ground. The four men stared down at the heap of paper at their feet.
It was a million pounds.
Very few people get to see a million pounds sterling first hand. Even fewer get to dump it on to a dirt floor in a remote abandoned building in the middle of the night. Those fifty pound bundles were power and potential in its purest form. It was countless acts of compassion and charity, or a lifetime without work. The amount was highly symbolic. It was the amount that is associated with success; the quantity of money needed to not only escape the rat-race, but to win it. That money was freedom, both physically and symbolically.
Cauty opened the first bundle and took out two fifty pound notes. He handed one to Drummond and set fire to both with his lighter. Despite the cold and damp, the flame readily ate through the paper. More notes were placed in the fireplace and, over the course of the next two hours, the fuckers burned the lot.
On their return from the Isle of Jura, Drummond and Cauty found themselves at the start of the long, hard process of coming to terms with what they had just done. As Cauty told the BBC six months after the burning, “Every day you wake up and think, ‘Oh God – I’ve just burned a million quid.’ Nobody thinks it was good. Everyone thinks that it’s a complete waste of time.” The heart of the problem was that they did not know why they had done it. “I don’t know what it is, what we did. Some days I do. Bits of it,” Drummond said, “But I’ve never thought that it was wrong.”
Drummond and Cauty’s inability to justify or explain their actions is one of the most intriguing aspects of what happened on Jura. It echoes the fates of the founders of Dadaism, the small group of artists and radicals who opened the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in the midst of the First World War. The Cabaret only lasted for six months, and no recordings were made of what happened there, yet those present spent the rest of their lives trying to come to terms with what they had done. They never really did. As the writer Greil Marcus points out, “This is the best evidence – the only real evidence – that something actually happened in Zurich in the spring of 1916.”
The money burning, however, was recorded. Gimpo had filmed the event with a small camcorder. In the months after the burning, as Drummond and Cauty searched for some context or insight to allow them to understand their actions, the idea that they should show people the film arose. Perhaps if they showed the film and asked for help, someone might be able to explain to them what they had done? This was, needless to say, a terrible idea. They were hardly in their right minds at the time, however, so they set about organising a film tour of arts venues and unusual locations around the British Isles. The first screening, on August 23rd 1995, would be in the village hall back on Jura.
People were, by and large, rather angry. This is not surprising. If you ask a crowd to tell you why you burned a million pounds, when that crowd would very much like to have a million pounds themselves and know that they never will, then there is not going to be a huge amount of sympathy in the room.
It was the pointlessness of the whole thing that got to people. When it was revealed in a court case in 2000 that Elton John had somehow spent £40 million in 20 months, including £293,000 on flowers, people reacted differently. There was much head shaking, tutting and many jokes, but generally speaking people didn’t take it personally. It was Elton John’s money after all, and his extravagance seemed in keeping with the personality that earned him that money in the first place. His wasted money, at the very least, had made a number of florists happy.
When Cauty and Drummond wasted their money it felt different. Seeing video footage of the burning was a genuine shock. Their money looked like kidney dialysis machines, beds in homeless shelters or funding for young artists in a way that Elton John’s wasted money didn’t. This wasn’t money being wasted; it was money being negated. The argument that it was their money, and they could do what they liked with it, didn’t ring true. What they had done felt wrong.
The adverts for the film screenings read, “Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond urgently need to know why did the K Foundation [Drummond and Cauty’s post-KLF name] burn a million quid? Was it a crime? Was it a burnt offering? Was it madness? Was it an investment? Was it Rock n’ Roll? Was it an obscenity? Was it art? Was it a political statement? Was it bollocks? There will be screenings of the film ‘Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid’ at relevant locations over the next twelve months. Each will be followed by a debate attended by Messrs Cauty and Drummond where the answers to the above questions and others will be sought.”
Debate did follow, but very little of it seemed helpful to Drummond and Cauty. There was some talk of art, pranks, scams and promotion, but nothing that really held up to scrutiny. Many wondered if the whole thing was a hoax, and if they ever burned money at all (this idea was discredited by a later BBC documentary, which produced a trail of evidence showing that the money was genuine).
Very quickly, however, a consensus view formed. It was a view that explained to most people’s satisfaction exactly what had happened. This consensus arose spontaneously from many different audiences and it allowed most people to put what had happened behind them and move on. The consensus was this: Drummond and Cauty are a pair of attention seeking arseholes.
It did seem like a power trip. As the pair sat behind a desk at the screenings it was easy to imagine that they were thinking, “We had a million pounds, something that you will never be able to obtain no matter how hard you work. And we didn’t want it. But we wouldn’t give it to you. We’d rather burn it than give it to you. So we did. Because we could.”
The fact that they did not know why they burned the money did not really figure in this reaction. Very few really believed that anyway. Were not the pair, according to almost every article written about them, some form of “master media manipulators?” The KLF, it was understood, were people who definitely knew what they were doing, for how else could you explain their success? From this perspective, their claim to be unable to justify their actions appeared to be an excuse to hold screenings and rub people’s noses in what they had done.
There were some supporters, of course, who praised the burning sincerely and genuinely. They often had some pet critical theory, a personal tower of cards, which allowed them to view the burning as artistically important. They were very much a minority, however, and nothing they could do or say could compete with the pair of attention seeking arseholes interpretation.
And really, who could say that that interpretation wasn’t true? Perhaps that was the crux of the matter. Perhaps there was nothing else to add.
The futility of it all came to a head whilst sitting in a Little Chef diner near Aviemore, in the Scottish Highlands, the morning after a screening of the film in Glasgow. Drummond and Cauty had had enough. The screenings, they finally understood, were not going to achieve anything. They began to draw up a contract that would force them to walk away from the whole thing. The contract read:
For the sake of our souls we the trustees of the K Foundation agree unconditionally, totally, and without hesitation to a binding contract with the rest of the world, the contract is as follows.
Bill Drummond + Jimmy Cauty agree to never speak, write or use any other form of media to mention the burning of one million pounds of their own money which occurred on the Island of Jura on 23 August 1994 for a period of 23 years after the date of signature.
Bill Drummond + Jimmy Cauty are free to end the K Foundation in all respects for a period of 23 years after the date of signature.
Bill Drummond + Jimmy Cauty agree to store all assets of the K Foundation, including the ash of the one million pounds burnt on Jura, for a period of 23 years from the date of signature. This is to be completed within 14 days of signature.
Bill Drummond + J Cauty agree to allow Alan Goodrick use, for whatever purpose, the film “Watch The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid” and all film rushes.
Bill Drummond + Jimmy Cauty agree to publish this contract as a one page advert in a broadsheet of their choice within 14 days of signature and to cover costs.
It is agreed that in signing this contract, the postponing of the K Foundation for the said period of 23 years, provides opportunity of sufficient length for an accurate and appropriately executed response to their burning of a million quid.
All that remained was to sign the contract and confirm the agreement. Cauty and Drummond had an idea about how to do this. They would write the contract on Gimpo’s van and then push that van over the cliffs at Cape Wrath on the northern tip of Scotland. That, it was felt, would be a suitable end to the matter.
Gimpo reacted to this idea by immediately returning to his van and driving back to London, leaving Drummond and Cauty stranded. This is one of the few sensible acts in this story.
Nevertheless, a G-reg Nissan bluebird was soon hired, Cauty and Drummond signed the contract in gold pen on the windscreen, and the poor car was duly pushed over the cliff to fall hundreds of feet into the crashing North Atlantic surf. Cauty had first removed the radiator cape because it would ‘smoke better’ as it fell.
And that should have been that.
Except that the pair of attention seeking arseholes consensus doesn’t really explain a great deal. It’s an incomplete picture. There are many attention seeking arseholes about but, by and large, they don’t go around burning their last million pounds.
Then there’s the matter of their inability to come to terms with what they did. The writer Andrew Smith described in The Observer how a long-time friend and associate of the KLF told him that they knew the burning was real “because afterwards, Jimmy and Bill looked so harrowed and haunted. And to be honest, they’ve never really been the same since.” Like the founders of the Cabaret Voltaire, the fact of their bewilderment is evidence that they were swept along by something larger, and something not of their design.
The fact that their actions are so incomprehensible suggests that we must be missing something. Somehow our view of our world or our culture is incomplete. Even if we accept that Cauty and Drummond were attention seeking arseholes, there still must have been some strange influences pushing them in that particular direction. We can be fairly certain, given the end result, that these influences will be disturbing and irrational. But if we pursue those influences, what will we find? Will they be interesting? More importantly, will they be useful?
How do you tell a story such as this?
In December 1995 I was fortunate enough to spend an evening with the American author Robert Anton Wilson. At the time I was researching a book about Timothy Leary, and Leary was a good friend and a major influence on Wilson.
It occurred to me to ask him his thoughts on the KLF. Robert Anton Wilson, it was generally understood, was a major figure in the KLF story. He co-wrote The Illuminatus! Trilogy, an underground but influential series of novels which had acted as inspiration and as a guiding philosophy for Drummond and Cauty’s musical adventures. The first name they used together, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, was taken directly from this work.
The reason I asked Wilson about The KLF had nothing to do with Timothy Leary. It was because I was intrigued by a rumour that I had heard via a friend of Cauty. The rumour was this: Although it was frequently claimed that the initials ‘KLF’ didn’t mean anything, or that they meant different things at different times (Kings of Low Frequencies, Kopyright Liberation Front, and so on), the initials did actually have a specific meaning. According to this rumour, KLF stood for ‘King Lucifer Forever’.
I was unsure what to make of this, but it didn’t feel right. The idea that there was the hidden secret at the heart of the band contradicted everything else I knew about them. It implied that they had a purpose, and that they knew what they were doing. This, to my way of thinking, seemed deeply out of character. Still, it was an odd thing for a friend of Cauty’s to claim, and an odd thing for someone to invent. I wondered if there was an air of ‘Chinese whispers’ about the phrase. Perhaps someone had made this suggestion as a joke after the band had ended, and the nature of word of mouth morphed it into the more interesting and definitive version which I heard?
Regardless, it planted in my head the idea that the story of the KLF would need to be told on very different levels to normal rock biographies. So I asked Wilson what his thoughts about the KLF were.
“I’ve never heard of them,” he told me.
“They were a British band who first called themselves the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu? They went on to burn a million pounds?” I prompted.
He shrugged. He explained that there were an awful lot of bands who played around with that imagery, and that he couldn’t keep track of them all. He also said that punk bands seemed particularly keen on it, which surprised him a little, as he wasn’t really into the punk thing.
I hadn’t expected that. Almost every account of the origins of The KLF mentioned Robert Anton Wilson. He was, I was sure, an integral part of their story and it seemed reasonable for him to be aware of this. The fact that he didn’t, however, provided the first hint into how this story could be told.
It is not necessary for a character in a story to be aware of that story. This is not something that we understand instinctively or intuitively. The films we watch are focused on a hero’s journey, and we automatically interpret the other characters as being part of that hero’s story. If we see merchandise from the Harry Potter movies (for example) which shows minor characters from the films, then this does not strike us as odd. That character is part of those films, after all, and therefore part of Harry Potter’s story.
Often, however, those characters should have no knowledge of the story that they are in. They may feature in an early scene and never be seen again, remaining blissfully ignorant of the events that follow. They would have no more reason for thinking that they were part of ‘Harry Potter’s story’ than the story of anyone else that they met. Indeed, the idea that this was ‘Harry’s story’ would seem ludicrous because, as far as they are concerned, they are in the middle of their own story. Their story could conceivably be more dramatic and exciting than Harry’s. To them, Harry would be a bit player in their own story, not vice versa. This is certainly the situation in narratives which deal with real, as opposed to fictitious, people. We are all forming our own narratives and we can’t be expected to keep track of everybody else’s narratives, no matter how much they would like us to.
In the light of Wilson’s comments, I started to wonder if there was such a thing as a story that no-one knows they are in – least of all the main characters. Could a complete narrative develop by itself with no-one guiding it or steering it? You would instinctively think not, yet whenever I thought about the KLF story and Cauty and Drummond’s confusion about their actions, I couldn’t shake the idea that there was nobody involved who could hear the story that was being told.
On one level the story of The KLF is easy to tell, because almost everything that they did between 1987 and 1994 was well recorded. Almost every song they produced, interview they gave, video they made or press release they issued is archived on the internet somewhere (or at least was and will be again – KLF websites and .ftp archives have a habit of appearing and disappearing). For this we must thank Drummond and Cauty’s championing of Situationist ideas, particularly with regard to their views on copyright. The Situationists were a small but influential group of avant-garde thinkers from the 1950s who thought that culture was forced upon us, and that we needed to take control of it. These ideas sufficiently influenced KLF fans so that, when the internet grew in the years after the band split, they digitised their collections and shared them with the world.
Thanks to these copyright-ignoring KLF fans, it is possible to download the entire story of The KLF, as it played out in the media, in an afternoon. Then, with every press article, photograph and interview laid out before you, you can then begin to pull a narrative out of all that data. The Situationists would have made a distinction between this mass of cultural data, what they would have called the spectacle of The KLF, and the actual events that caused this spectacle. What we have is not what happened, but it is all we can know about what happened. As the Situationists saw it, it is all that you can ever have to go on.
This made sense to me because of my experience researching the Timothy Leary biography. For that book, I behaved as you would expect a conscientious biographer to behave, and for a very good reason. I had never written a book before, or indeed any text of length. I didn’t know what I was doing, essentially, and wanted to hide that fact from people. As a result I worked diligently and tracked down people who had first-hand knowledge of events, formed a good relationship with his estate and gained access to a number of archives, including Leary’s own. I travelled thousands of miles and I got to know as many people as my budget and time frame would allow, because basically that is what you are supposed to do.
As I progressed with this research, however, I noticed a surprising pattern in the data. Time and again, older books, letters and interviews proved to be far more illuminating than first hand interviews. It soon came apparent that accounts of events changed over time, and that the ‘truth’ of what happened depended very much on the date of your source. This was clear to me because I had access to Leary’s own archive of papers. I could read letters and diary entries written at the time, find later magazine interviews about the same period, and also speak to surviving witnesses thirty or forty years after the event. These differing sources revealed a drift away from the raw chaos of what actually happened into a neater, simpler narrative which didn’t always match with the original sources. Even though later sources could offer greater perspective and illuminate things that were not apparent at the time, I adopted a rule of favouring the older sources whenever possible. They captured the flavour of the times, somehow, in a way that the more considered later versions didn’t.
Researchers have studied this drift of memory into error in great detail, and found it to be an undeniable fact of our lives – even if most people refuse to accept it about their own memories. This drift has been found to be so precise and predictable that it can be plotted on a graph, known as the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting. What happens is that witnesses slowly absorb events into their own narrative, losing the loose ends and unexplained incidents and making sense of what they can with respect to their own lives and prejudices. We all do this. Indeed, if modern neuroscience is correct, it is something that we do far more than we think. The role of the ego, it appears, is less like a President or a Prime Minister deciding on a course of action, and more like their spin doctor, explaining the action afterwards in the best possible light. We rationalise the actions of our unconscious minds and present them as an entirely correct, politically consistent course of action regardless of what it was or how uninvolved we are in the decision.
All this needs to be considered in any attempt to say why the KLF burnt a million pounds. If the central protagonists were as baffled as everyone else about their behaviour, and if other characters are not even aware that they are in this story, that leaves us with something of a problem. In this instance, asking the protagonists what happened all these years later would not only fail to illuminate those events, it would almost certainly take us decidedly off course. Many journalists have already tried this approach, interviewing Cauty and Drummond at length about the burning, and it hasn’t really got them anywhere.
What is the alternative? We are left with the spectacle, and it is from within this spectacle that any answer to why they burnt a million pounds must be sought. This approach seems particularly well suited to this story, because taking an encyclopaedic, academic approach to The KLF is not going to reveal the things that we’re searching for. Drummond and Cauty stumbled map-less through their own stories, taking and using whatever they felt useful, so that is the approach we will take as well. We are attempting to find the spirit of those events, and we can only do that by invoking them ourselves.
Here, then, is a story that the cast were not told they were in.
Buy The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds by JMR Higgs on Amazon.